Hawaii county election troubles appear to be "over reaction" to minor problems

Hawaii county election troubles appear to be "over reaction" to minor problems
Published: Jul. 31, 2012 at 10:04 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 1, 2012 at 1:11 AM HST
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Honolulu (HawaiiNewsNow) – After a week of not responding to reporters' inquiries as well as calls from state elections and political campaign officials, Hawaii County Clerk Jamae Kawauchi told reporters at the State Capitol Tuesday why she closed her office in Hilo for a day last week and went to the state Attorney General's office.

She said her office discovered several dozen Hawaii Island voters with duplicate voter registrations and found about four people who voted twice in the same elections in 2010.

Sources told Hawaii News Now this is a case of a rookie county clerk who's never overseen an election over reacting to some routine voter problems that should have been discovered months or weeks ago, not less than three weeks before the primary election.

After meeting with state's chief election officer and the county clerks of the other three counties in Honolulu, Kawauchi spoke to reporters in the State Senate chambers, where elections officials are preparing to count votes in the Aug. 11 primary.

She said she closed her office July 23 to conduct an audit of Hawaii County voter rolls and found 50 to 60 Big Island voters were registered to vote twice.

"Between 50 and 60 voters had duplicate names.  They were in different districts and precincts.  There was no pattern.  And my understanding is that is typical of … I don't think it's out of the ordinary," Kawauchi said.

Sources familiar with the situation said Kawauchi "freaked out" when she discovered the errors, considered routine by more experienced election experts, since there are about 101,000 people registered to vote on the island of Hawaii.

She closed her office for a day and never sought help from other counties or the state, causing concern among politicians, other election officials and some members of the public.

"The usual course is a review (of the voter rolls) as you go along.  Corrections as you go along.  So I wouldn't necessarily say it's (closing the office for an audit) necessary.  It's something that I just chose to do to cross the Ts and dot our Is," Kawauchi told reporters.

Kawauchi says the clerk's office in Hilo also discovered records showing about four people who were allowed to vote twice in the 2010 elections in different districts and precincts, and that's why she went to lawyers in the attorney general's office last Thursday.

"That doesn't seem to be a pattern.  That's not systemic and it appears that it also could be a clerical matter but again, as appropriate, I wanted to make sure that i did discuss that with the attorney general's office," Kawauchi told reporters.

State election officials and election experts in other counties said there does not appear to be any election fraud in these cases.

"It's a list of 687,000 persons, so you gotta expect that there will be some errors within that list," said Glen Takahashi, who's been Honolulu's elections administrator for the last ten years, referring to the number of registered voters in the state.

Takahashi said occasionally data entry clerks in county clerk's offices make typos on people's names, birth dates or social security numbers, which could lead to duplicate voter registrations, but those mistakes should be discovered through careful review that needs to happen gradually in the months leading up to an election.  He said people might re-register to vote using a middle initial when they're already in the system without a middle initial, for example, creating a duplicate voter registration for the same person.

Takahashi said voting records can appear to show people voted twice, even when that didn't happen.

"Say a person votes absentee and they spoil a ballot, then we re-mail them a ballot.  That's not necessarily voting twice.  But if you're just looking at the paper, whatever, it could appear like, eh, something happened here," Takahashi said.

Scott Nago, the state's chief election officer, said he and other election officials met with Kawauchi Tuesday before she spoke to reporters.

"We had a good meeting.  I think we will be able to provide the voters with a secure, open and honest election," Nago said.

Last week, Nago wrote Kawauchi a stinging letter saying her behavior was "unacceptable," after she shut down her office last Monday without notifying state officials before hand, seeking help or responding to his requests for updates on the situation for several days.

Asked about that, Kawauchi said,"We notified them (the state election office) in the afternoon (after closing Monday morning).  And in hindsight, it would have been much more appropriate for us to have notified them earlier."

And when a reporter asked why she took eight days to finally answer reporters' questions in depth about what happened in her office, Kawauchi said, "We're going to do our best to answer to be able to answer media questions as rapidly as possible."

Kawauchi alienated herself from her home-island reporters by not calling them back last week but then showing up at the Big Island Press Club dinner in Hilo Friday night, and refusing to answer questions about election problems in the clerk's office.

On Tuesday, speaking to reporters in Honolulu, she lamented that her office does not have a media liaison and she doesn't have budget control to create such a position.  But officials on other islands pointed out they don't have dedicated media spokespersons either and the county clerks or election administrators handle speaking with reporters as part of their jobs.

Kawauchi, who was hired as county clerk and approved unanimously by the Hawaii County Council in December of 2010, has never handled any elections before.  The election administrator she hired has also never overseen an election.

The longtime Hawaii County election administrator, Pat Nakamoto, who Kawauchi fired early this year, successfully filed a union grievance and was reinstated to her former job. Kawauchi has placed her on leave with pay and is not using her expertise in this election, according to Nakamura's lawyer, Ted Hong.

In the end, other state and county officials said there's no evidence of fraud happening on the Big Island. State officials notified the FBI, which began gathering information on the case but never opened a formal investigation, sources said.

The last voter fraud case in Hawaii happened nearly thirty years ago, with the conviction of Clifford Uwaine in 1986 for improperly obtaining absentee votes from elderly people at a retirement home.

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